There is a constant hum at the corner of Armstrong Road and Park Avenue, not out of place among the electric and steel companies that make up the industrial side streets of Garden City Park. But it isn’t the sound of electric generators or the engines of machinery that can be heard above rush hour traffic. Behind an 8-foot gate sits a tiny beige cabin as unassuming as a tool shed—yet it’s the last line of defense between an invisible toxic gasoline additive, Methyl tert- butyl ether (MTBE), and the town’s drinking water supply. Within these walls a pump works day and night to strip the suspected carcinogen, a fast-moving toxin that has spread from a leaking storage tank more than a mile away, from residents’ water supply before it eventually hits the faucets of more than 8,000 homes.
Long Island has a drinking problem.
It’s a problem that is rarely discussed outside of water districts and scientific circles. Hundreds of gasoline spills, which contain carcinogens like benzene, are reported each year in Nassau and Suffolk counties. Countless others go unreported or unnoticed. Cleaning them up can run into the millions and take decades to complete. Those responsible are rarely prosecuted in legal tug of wars that seem to go nowhere, while water companies are constantly testing the waters for an invisible enemy that could show up at any time, without any warning and with unknown consequences.
A four-month investigation by the Press has discovered that hundreds of these leaks and spills—already identified—have remained unresolved, with the contaminants continuing to pollute our subterranean water supply.
The New York State (NYS) Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), the agency charged with overseeing the remediation of gasoline spills, leaks and other environmentally destructive incidents, has already cleaned up hundreds of these sites on LI, but there are hundreds more backlogged, some decades old. Yet the information on these spills available to the public is slim to none—leaving many, from moms and dads filling up the family water pitcher with tap water to the more than 2.7 million Island residents who shower from the same water source, in the dark about just how serious a problem the contamination of our aquifers is.
“The vast majority of people on Long Island are almost totally ignorant of the presence of these toxic chemical hazards,” says Walter Hang, president of Toxics Targeting, an environmental mapping company in Ithaca. “These are sites that the government says are a threat to the environment or the public health and no one tells people that these sites are there—no one tells them that the contamination is going right underneath their neighborhood.”
Hang has provided maps, utilizing data from state and local agencies, to Long Island water districts that are threatened by these hazards—more than 15,000 suspected spills are reported in NYS each year. These spills are compiled in the DEC’s Spill Incidents Database, which currently contains hundreds of gasoline spills in Nassau and Suffolk counties classified as “open,” some going back to the 1980s. This classification means they haven’t been completely cleaned up yet. Additionally, the data fields that are supposed to detail exactly what is released, when, and in what amounts, are many times left blank or filled with inaccurate information—with some spills documented as being reported before they even happen, for example.
“Occasionally the database was so flawed that no intelligible address could be puzzled out from it and the sites listed appeared to be nonexistent,” the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said in a 2002 study.
Hundreds more of these spills go unreported.
“The leaking tanks have been a problem going back years,” says Paddy South, a spokesman for the Suffolk County Water Authority. “Because the leaks can go on undetected there’s no real way to find them all.”
In an attempt to assess the extent of the problem, the DEC visited a handful of the approximately 1,100 gas stations on Long Island and reported in 2008 that it found 32 unreported spills at the 56 gas stations inspected. One gas station owner was caught pouring clean water in a test well to dilute the pollution. The study concluded that “unknown discharges of MTBE likely have significantly impacted groundwater and drinking water source waters of Long Island.”
Hang points out other deficiencies in the system as well.
“The key field you cannot see in the DEC database is whether or not the spill meets applicable standards,” he explains. “They have whether or not it’s administratively open or closed and it’s very misleading because they close out spills all the time that don’t meet the required standards.”
Hang blames staff shortages and the high expense of cleanup costs. Requests by the Press for a response to these accusations from multiple DEC representatives were not specifically answered as of press time. Nor were questions regarding whether spill cases were being closed prematurely by the agency. Instead, statements such as the following were issued in response:
“The Department annually responds to approximately 16,000 spills, and has ongoing work at roughly 800+ hazardous waste sites, 500+ voluntary cleanup sites and 250+ former manufactured gas plants,” wrote Aphrodite Montalvo, citizen participation specialist at the DEC’s Stony Brook office. “In short, DEC is heavily involved in cleanups across NY and has one of the most aggressive programs in the country.”
Though the problem of leaky gas storage tanks leaching into the ground isn’t unique to Long Island, the aquifer system is. Aquifers are geological formations that contain water, sort of like an underground pocket full of H2O. Unlike most of the country, the island sits directly atop its sole drinking water supply. Consequently, rogue gasoline tanks carry especially heavy consequences for the nearly 3 million residents who are dependant on this underground water source.
The longer the silent contaminants remain in the ground, warn experts, the larger the toxic plumes—fluid masses of pollutants—can expand, and the bigger their ramifications can become. But ridding our soil and water of MTBE is no easy task.